Dr. Fillan gave Mr. Andrew Smith Priestley’s reputed machine for impregnating waters—He appears to think very much of it but very little of its application.
—Journal of Jonathan Troup, August 3, 1789
IN TROUP’S FIRST FEW weeks, Dominica looked as though it was a colonial venture with a stable society (figure 2.1), functioning without threat of insolvency, whose populace thrived in the lush environment. The mountain forests, the bustling port town on the water’s edge, and the orderly plantation fields between the two were misleading. Morning rains that fell almost like clockwork had given him the mistaken impression that water was everywhere. Water was not always abundant, and for those who did not own land its access was not guaranteed. Precipitation could vary significantly. The leeward slopes, just north of Roseau, were in rain shadow for most of the year. Groundwater also varied in quality. Wells dug close to the shoreline could become brackish in high tide, and many springs on the geologically active island were hot and contained elements of the earth that made it less than palatable. Surface water found in rivers and ponds could also vary. While the island is the putative home to 365 rivers, only one of those rivers, fed by sulfur springs, flows in the Parish of St. Mark. In Dominica, there were many types of water.
Water, a kind of material, mattered for those forced to enact the plans of English-speaking elites in eighteenth-century Dominica. In the above passage, Troup and his colleague Mr. Kemp are excited about a new instrument devised by Joseph Priestley, who was one of the preeminent chemists of the time. In his book, Directions for Impregnating Water with Fixed Air, Priestley provides a detailed account of how to add bubbles to water. As a physician, Troup was familiar with the book and its findings. While instructing the reader on the art of making carbonated water, it also described qualities of water and how those qualities could be changed. In the appendix, for example, Priestley describes a “decoction of a Peruvian bark,” most likely the same used in quinine, to alleviate the symptoms of “fever, loose stool, and immoderate thirst.”1 What this book makes clear is that water was not just a natural substance. It could be crafted in a way that could transform its qualities. That said, people had been crafting water for years before Priestley came to the scene.
Water was both fluid and entangled with the environment, and was a key predicament of slavery. In the context of eighteenth-century slave colonies, people living on plantations were often challenged to obtain water to drink, irrigate their gardens, wash themselves, and cook their food. Some of their creative methods to get water were passed from one generation to the next. Others were borrowed from strangers whom they met for the first time in the Caribbean. Still others were improvised by undocumented inventors struggling to resolve the predicaments they faced in everyday life. These waterways stretch back in time, before the poorly documented date when strangers from across the ocean met on this island. They extend out to the cultural attitudes that people held on those distant shores from which the strangers came. They anchor down immediate and concrete, such as where precipitation and soil conditions inform the availability of groundwater for cultivation, and metabolic and household needs. They gesture inward to the nearby and particular concerns that informed how strangers dealt with each other when they met face to face. The emergent waterways variously inscribed themselves into the landscape, household assemblages, and the way people talked about them.
A crucial element of waterways is the waterscape they inhabit. Typically, “waterscapes” include water and how people’s relationship with and through it shapes life on land.2 Waterscapes are an important part of the waterways through which people framed their lives. Anyone who has spent significant time in the Caribbean is forced to consider water as a central factor in everyday life—both in its scarcity and in its abundance. As with most regions situated between the Tropic of Cancer and the Equator, its climate is structured by dry and wet seasons. Droughts and hurricanes, while irregular, are not infrequent. Such events punctuated everyday life in terms of the food that grew, the water that people drank, and the degrees of freedom people had in moving about the landscape. As such, water was something people managed but never resolved. People’s relationship with water reaches to the distant past, when they first entered the region and brought or developed new practices and ideas of how water could be managed. Analysis of waterways sets the stage for understanding colonizing narratives, including those that shaped colonial policies and distant markets, and the implications of these narratives for enslaved Africans and the people who claimed ownership over them.
Those familiar with the Caribbean know that the islands are a living landscape. The environment is not a pre-existing condition altered through the plans of English-speaking elites. Rather, relationships evolve with and through the environment. Certainly, there is a kind of agricultural intensification of this land that accompanies settler colonialism, where the indigenous frontier is “improved” in the minds of Europeans to commercialize its resources into commodities such as silver, sugar, and cotton.3 But to describe the world in which Europeans entered as a “First Nature” would be to overlook the millennia of world-making that islanders had already accomplished.4
When Dominica was intensively settled by Europeans by the mid-eighteenth century, the landscape had already been modified by human settlement and land use.5 For a newcomer like Troup, the landscape he entered might have appeared wild despite millennia of humanization that shaped soil, biodiversity, and even climate. To be precise, humans entered and began to manipulate the insular landscape more than 6,000 years earlier. They and those who followed precipitated the extinction of a host of species, introduced others, and shaped the land through trees they felled, soils they modified, and plants they cultivated. Of course, the physical geography of the insular Caribbean also had important implications for relationships of people with and through water.
Wayfarers entering the Caribbean encountered a region rich with land and sea resources, some of which were vaguely familiar to those they had seen in South America. The sea contains several island chains that are typically separated into four major groups: the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, Bahamas, and those adjacent to the South American mainland, including Curaçao, Bonaire, and Aruba. The 115 islands (not counting islets or cays) comprise approximately 240,000 square kilometers—roughly the size of the United Kingdom. Most of that landmass (95 percent) is the Greater Antilles. Cuba, Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico have large interiors, long rivers with wide valleys, and diverse landscapes that approximate those on the continents that surround the sea. Then and now, these islands were home to larger populations that could be supported on terrestrial resources, though not exclusively. The Lesser Antilles are smaller, with a total land mass just under half the size of Hispaniola. These islands contain far less diverse landscapes compared with the Greater Antilles, though they can look quite different from one another. Given the smaller interiors, their denizens relied heavily on a combination of maritime and terrestrial resources.
The terrain on which people lived looked different depending on the island they lived on. In this tectonically active region, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions can dramatically change the amount of land, its relief, and the resources that it can afford. Caribbean islands can be broken down to fault block, carbonate, volcanic, and mixed islands. In the Greater Antilles, mountains forming Cuba’s Sierra Maestra, as well as the central spines of Jamaica, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico, are extensions of mountains found in Belize and Guatemala. This chain was formed from the vertical displacement of land at the fault line of the Caribbean and North American plates. As such, many of these fault-block islands are prone to earthquakes. The majority of the Lesser Antilles belongs to one of two overlapping and parallel island arcs. These arcs were formed from the expanding Atlantic plate and the subduction of the South American plate underneath the Caribbean plate. The older, outer arc begins with Anguilla and St. Martin and extends in an irregular shape through to Grand-Terre and Marie-Galante in Guadeloupe. These islands are characterized by low relief and carbonate bedrock formed from marine reef deposits on sunken islands uplifted or left stranded by receding sea levels.6 The younger, inner arc begins in Saba and continues through Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, and Grenada. These islands contain steep mountains, narrow valleys, and much less in the way of flat land.
The terrain that people entered continued to evolve. The Kalinago, an Arawaken-speaking people whose ancestors saw Columbus’ caravels on his second voyage on Sunday, November 3, 1493, call Dominica Wai’tu Kubuli. This roughly translates to “tall is her body.” It was given this name principally for two reasons. For people who lived on this island, "The earth was an indulgent mother who furnished them with all things necessary to life.”7 The mountain ranges that form the spine of these islands are, for the most part, extinct or dormant, including Dominica’s five peaks. Kalinago ancestors experienced tremors, earthquakes, and eruptions, which would have reminded them of the earth’s active and sentient nature. Sometime between 340 and 420 CE, the southernmost volcano in Dominica erupted, burying one of the villages documented by archaeologists on the island.8 The same volcano erupted more than a thousand years later, between 1410 and 1590.9
No eruptions have been documented in Dominica since Europeans arrived in the sixteenth century; however, the region is still active. To the north, Montserrat experienced a devastating earthquake in 1995. In 1902, Mount Pelée in northern Martinique erupted with an explosive pyroclastic flow that leveled the town of St. Pierre and hurled massive stone boulders several meters from their perches. For some time, Pelée had been active. Relatively minor eruptions occurred in 1792, and in 1851 an eruption deposited a fine ash lens. In this way, the islands continue to be a living landscape that shapes everyday life.
The geological history is important because it informs, indirectly, the amount and kind of precipitation as well as the amount and volume of groundwater. Not all islands offer the same relief, and this topography affects the intensity and location of rainfall. Climate specialists generally talk about three kinds of precipitation: cyclonic, convective, and orthographic. Cyclonic precipitation results from high-energy events, including tropical waves, tropical storms, and hurricanes. This typically heavy rainfall is accompanied by high winds. People living in Dominica encountered hurricanes more frequently than islands to the south and less frequently than islands to the north. Convective precipitation falls when moist air is warmer than its surroundings. Relatively short in duration, intensity varies depending on the speed of the wind, the differences in air temperature, and the moisture content of the atmosphere. In Dominica, convective rainfall can happen with some regularity in the wet season. In the dry season, precipitation can be quite negligible. Orthographic rainfall occurs when moist air, near the surface, is forced upward into cooler layers of the atmosphere when prevailing winds reach tall mountains. Moisture in the atmosphere is released. The regularity and intensity of rainfall has changed since humans first arrived on the island.
Precipitation informs both surface and groundwater availability. Groundwater that permeates into the soil and porous rock varies considerably. Layers of the soil saturated with water are the land’s aquifer. The barrier between saturated rock and the nonsaturated rock above it is the water table. These water tables are rarely horizontal and often reflect the topography of the underlying geology. Different geologies have different levels of porosity and permeability, which means that water does not move around the same way, nor is it captured to the same degree. Carbonate bedrock, found in both the outer arc islands and Barbados, is both permeable and porous, leading to significant aquifers that feed springs or can be reached by digging wells. Weakly cemented volcanic ash, which underlies many of the dispersed soils in the inner arc islands, is permeable but has low porosity. This means that it drains well but cannot capture the water. “Perched” water tables can form, but only when the underlying rock is impermeable, creating subterranean basins. The water generally drains laterally from these basins into springs (Fr. source). In some cases, these interfaces are near active volcanic zones creating hot springs (Fr. soufrière). Aquifers are recharged through precipitation. Therefore, the depth of the water table can lower during dry seasons, or droughts, or if more water is being removed from the aquifer through wells than rainfall is able to recharge it.
The vegetation present can also affect the amount of groundwater. A combination of plants with shallow root systems and intensified precipitation cycles can lead to soil erosion, destabilizing permeable layers of soil that contain water. Monoculturing plants in areas where aquifers need constant rainfall to recharge can have the effect of lowering the water table and putting plants and animals in competition for the same resource. Plants are not agnostic when it comes to aquifers. Take, for example, cotton. It prefers “dry feet.” That is, cotton prefers to grow in areas with a well-drained soil where the aquifer is relatively deep.10 Other plants are more tolerant. Rice yields do not suffer as much from having waterlogged soils.11 Sugar cane is somewhere between the two. Yields increase significantly when the water table is deeper than sixty centimeters.12 In Dominica, where plants in some regions rely on perched water tables, new relationships between water, soil, and plants that accompany some crops could create new kinds of groundwater scarcity.
Thinking about how humans related with and through water invites us to extend our scale of inquiry in time and space to consider the five-thousand-year history of settlement in Dominica. If we consider the important work on paleoenvironment in the region,13 evidence collected by archaeologists, geographers, and environmental scientists provides a general picture of sea level rise. While such general data omits a more nuanced local picture of how coastal erosion, vegetation, and maritime animal communities shaped and were shaped by new coastlines,14 there is consensus that Caribbean sea levels have risen during the past ten thousand years.15 Climate is also thought to have changed enormously over the past ten thousand years—the Caribbean was once a much more humid place.
Humanization of the Caribbean began sometime around 5000 BCE. The exact path is of some dispute. Traditionally, archaeologists described an early eastward migration of people from Mesoamerica into Cuba, made possible by an archipelago that existed from the coast of Nicaragua to Jamaica (the Nicaragua Rise).16 As relative sea levels rose through the Holocene, many of these islands and shelves were submerged, most disappearing between 3000 and 2000 BCE.17 Simultaneously, people migrated northward from South America using the Lesser Antilles as stepping stones.18 Archaeologists suggested this dual-path hypothesis to explain two seemingly discordant observations. First, the earliest human-made materials have been, by and large, recovered from the Greater Antilles. Second, canoe traffic was easier using the lesser Antilles as stepping stones. Recent research and reporting placing the earliest sites in the Caribbean’s northern islands and its southernmost islands has shifted our understanding of the humanization of the Caribbean.19 Computer modeling suggests a third pathway, where early South American wayfarers entered into the Caribbean near Curaçao and followed strong sea currents northward into the north Caribbean, bypassing the Lesser Antilles. People then moved successively southward.20 While which of the pathways may be debated, it’s clear that sea levels, currents, and the skill of the Caribbean’s earliest inhabitants to navigate them were all key factors in the islands’ humanization.
When humans began to occupy the Lesser Antilles, sea levels were still rising and the climate may have been in a particularly wet phase of the region’s history.21 The fluctuations in sea level challenged these distant ancestors and required resolution through the choices they made in locating their settlement, the way they made a living off land and sea, and the architecture they lived in. But so would changes in weather. Archaeologists suggest that El Niño prompted a series of droughts with which people had to contend.22 The annual cycle of hurricanes also challenged everyday life for the early migrants. While hurricanes are a fact of life, when and where they reach landfall seemed unpredictable. Hurricanes threatened settlements with flooding.23 In some instances, settlements were built on artificial mounds to protect communities against tsunamis and heavy storms.24 People began to reinforce their housing with seemingly redundant poles. These structures show a degree of resilience and planning for the high winds and heavy rains.25
The cycles of dry season and wet season were crucial for successful harvests among the horticulturalists that moved into the Caribbean beginning in the late BCE and who continued to occupy the islands through the subsequent centuries.26 Slashing and burning areas of forest too early meant that the seedlings and tubers withered and died. Too late meant that preparing soil was more difficult, and immature tubers and seedlings rotted before taking root. The North Star, the Pleiades, and Ursa Major were all constellations whose position could be used to predict the annual cycles of precipitation.27 Charting the stars was not just a matter of tracking the days. It was part of a complex cosmology in which rain and sunshine had both constructive and destructive elements.28 It is clear that water figured prominently in settlement decisions for people in the Caribbean. It is also clear that people were not just reacting to the environment, but trying to account for climatic variation and plan for the vagaries of water differences in the islands they settled.
The long-term history of human-environment interactions also allows us to make crucial points about the perceptions of geography that newcomers—including the islands’ first nations, European colonizers, and foreign researchers—brought with them. The Caribbean on the eve of European conquest was a “cultural mosaic.”29 Its people held varying customs, organized through surfeit political institutions, and made a living on a range of environmental engagements.30 The same could be said for the people who inhabited the coastal villages of Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Martinique, or Dominica as early as 400 BCE.31 By CE 1500, shared styles of Cayo pottery in the Eastern Caribbean islands and the Koriabo style in Guyana provide the most direct evidence of durable circulations of people, animals, and things through raiding, trading, and intermarriage. Studies of the fabric that makes up these pottery traditions suggest that these clay objects recovered from the Eastern Caribbean are strongly affiliated with contemporary ceramics recovered from Guyana.32
A map of the Caribbean drawn by a Kalinago in the sixteenth century included the South American mainland. James Ley, the Duke of Marlborough, describes a map of that world: “The Carybes have tenn Rivers. . . . And one other little Iland . . .”33 This map includes rivers like the Macouria, Kourou, Suriname, and Coppename in Suriname and French Guyana, as well as the islands of Dominica, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Grenada. In 1596, Lawrence Keymis explored the South American littoral coast and traveled the Orinoco Delta. He stated that the nation of Iapios on the mainland spoke the same language as the people of Dominica.34 This geography maps well to what archaeologists know about the migration of people into the Caribbean and the continued circulation of people and goods in the millennia that preceded European colonization.35
This map differs significantly from the one that would be drawn by English-speaking elites at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763. For pamphleteers and cartographers working in the lead-up and aftermath of the peace, Eastern Caribbean islands shared a geographic affinity with North America, especially the colonies that would putatively benefit from their inclusion into the empire.36 This discourse naturalized political and economic sinews that circulated foodstuffs such as rice and wheat—grown in South Carolina and New England, respectively—that would be used to feed the enslaved labor force, which cultivated and processed botanical commodities for elsewhere. Kalinago construction of territory did not configure easily with land or territory as understood by the Europeans. This is not to say that the Kalinago did not distinguish between islands.
Literary sources, including Père Raymond Breton’s Dictionnaire Carraïbe-Français, can be useful in establishing how people who called themselves Kalinago understood these geographies.37 Breton (1609–1679) was one of four Dominican missionaries who established a mission for the Frères prêcheurs in the Eastern Caribbean. He arrived in Guadeloupe in 1635 and returned to France in 1653. He carefully transcribed indigenous words, commenting on taxonomies and semantics. Most accounts did not record these subtleties, nor document the cultural and social milieu in which they were used.38 The source, therefore, has been invaluable in offering some clues about everyday life of the Kalinago and their ancestors. Breton records different names for the windward islands: Caloucaéra, or Guadeloupe; Ioüánacaéra, or Martinique; Ioüànalao, or St. Lucia; Iouloumain, or St. Vincent; and Camáogne, or Grenada.39 Names aside, the Kalinago also shaped the islands in important ways.
There are historical implications for the diverse structural geology described in earlier pages. Different geologies meant that different islands had different things to offer. Because of the differences in how and when these islands formed, and their different compositions of geological matter, similar objects made on different islands can look quite different from one another. Subtle differences in these parent materials were recognized by the Kalinago. According to Breton, there were stones for women, stones for men, and one variety of stone that was counterfeit. These stones would be sourced from different islands. Some stones, while not semi-precious, were similarly important for their use in manufacture. There were different words used by Dominican Kalinago for the pumice stone used in making canoe paddles.40 Pumice stone from Martinique was called méoulou. Pumice stone from Marie Galante was called cherouli.
Archaeologists have used these subtle differences to mark interisland traffic in everyday objects, such as pottery used to store water on long canoe trips, or semi-precious stones that were readily found on one island but not others. Various materials circulated within and between the Greater and Lesser Antilles at different points in time, suggesting interregional trade. Ceramic, lithic, and guanín (gold-copper alloy) objects, as well as tools and ornaments of coral, shell, and bone, were brought to the Caribbean islands from the South and Central American mainland.41 These included items of adornment made from armadillo, opossum, deer, and jaguar bone. There are also shell objects made from fresh water mollusks available only in Venezuelan river systems. Archaeologists have also found beads and pendants made of semi-precious stones that are not found on readily exploitable geologies of the insular Caribbean.42 These include agate, amber, amethyst, aventurine, barite, carnelian, malachite, nephrite, and olivine. There is also strong evidence that shells of queen conch, Eustrombus gigas (commonly found in the insular Caribbean), were circulated sometimes as far as the hinterland of what is today Venezuela.
Waterways enabled similar material repertoires. The circulation between Guyana and the islands of Dominica, Martinique, St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada—the heartland of the Kalinago, and the home territory of people whom the Spanish would later identify as Island Caribs—was particularly dense. A robust trade in semi-precious stones—amethyst, quartz, and greenstone—brought Caribbean trade to life. It is becoming increasingly clear that some islands specialized in stones, while others in some other kind of good. Take, for example, petaloids found throughout the region. Petaloids are stone axes made of diorite, rhyolite, or basalt. These stones are not part of Barbados’s ecology; therefore, the axes found there represent trade with regions where such stones were quarried. The petaloid as a trade good was likely one element in a complex system of social, political, and economic interaction.
This mobility shaped the Atlantic world, and there is a political-economic aspect to it. Early in Europe’s engagement with the Eastern Caribbean, Indigenous peoples were important commercial and political actors. As stated earlier, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Kalinago of Tobago produced a significant quantity of tobacco for the European market.43 In Barbados, the English relied on the Kalinago of Dominica to supply cotton hammocks and arrowroot for their domestic and overseas markets.44 Finally, the French, English, and Spanish relied on Kalinago expertise in local waterways for turtle fishing, navigating canoes, and waging raids against European adversaries. There is also a hydrosocial aspect to trade. Goods, including petaloids, coins, beads, and other items, were a medium of foreign relations that marked the connectivity between shores. Beads and coins carried with them certain expectations on the part of the Arawak-speaking peoples. Channels of water, in these instances, were far from a territorial boundary. Rather, they signified a connectivity between shores. This connectivity contrasted with European conceptions of channels and the barriers they thought they should signify. This fundamentally different view of space would continue to shape the circulation of goods well into the twentieth century, identifying some goods, no matter how mundane, as contraband.45
In his Dictionnaire Caraïbe-Français, Breton documented that the Kalinago had a highly complex taxonomy of water. Relationships with water in this document parallel some taxonomies found in English, but with some significant differences. The term tona can be used interchangeably for both river and water. As a liquid, it can be contrasted with arágoni (urine), araógane (sweat), conóboüI (rain), inhali (manioc juice), or ira (juice or liquor), among others. As a landscape feature, it can be contrasted with acoúllou (a pond, pit, or abyss), balánna (sea), and icópoüi (brackish pond). As a substance, water can be qualified. It can be a fishy river (káricheti tona), but it can also be combined to create something other than the sum of its parts. The word amoyen means “cold,” but, when used in combination with tona, means “fresh water.” The prefix bácha signifies heat. When combined with water, báchuetitona can mean “stomach fluids” or “brackish water.” Inchiali means to smell bad, but, but inchiénli tona means “saltwater” or “troubled water.” Such terms are useful in reconstructing some of the taxonomies that might have been salient for the Kalinago during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Water could purify, but water is defined narrowly according to this taxonomy. Liquids holding these latent qualities must come from the river. The act of bathing, nicobi niabou, was a way for water to wash away other kinds of liquids. Breton commented that every morning, Kalinago men “go to wash at the river (women and children go there at another time),” especially in the places where the river is “heated” from sulfur springs. He goes on to say, “If they are wet with seawater, rain, or if they are dirty, or if they are too hot from some work, they return to wash.”46 From this description, we can surmise that different qualities of water mattered for the Kaliango; though we cannot assume that baths were required for the same reasons, Breton describes these qualities in relation to health. Work brought about araógane (sweat). Seawater did carry with it a connotation of dirt. Rain might chill the body too much.
Water carried important symbolic significance. For example, children referred to the wife of their father who was not their mother as their noucouchoutonarou. This roughly translates to “my mother by water.” This presumably references three aspects of Kalinago kinship: first, that consanguinity, relatedness by blood, did dictate some of the terms under which family was constructed; second, that family structure was polygamous; and finally, that many of the members of the family were brought in from other places by canoe. Objects in a landscape are important elements in understanding such taxonomies. A clue to the ritual significance of water and precipitation in early- and late-ceramic ages are etched into portable objects and stationary rock surfaces. Take Atabey, the frog lady. She is one avatar of the apical female deity of Taino cosmology. She is also the mistress of the wind and the destructive force of hurricanes. The location and alignment of petroglyphs reveal that their carving was a largely political act: aligning living descendants with ancient ancestors of a particular deceased cacique or cacica (master or mistress).47 Rock art depicting frogs has been found throughout the Windwards, including Grenada (six instances), St. Vincent (thirteen), St. Lucia (five), Martinique (three), and Guadeloupe (twelve). The presence and frequency of rock art could be an indication of anxiety over water security and the attempt to control it through spiritual means.48
Recurrent themes of this art—the fruit-eating bat and the tree frog—reflect Kalinago concerns about the annual cycles of precipitation and its ritual management. The coquí, or tree frog, “comes from beneath the surface of the water” and is linked to the destructive hurricane season. The fruit-eating bat “lives out of the water . . . and is a dry animal” linked to the equally destructive dry season, when many islands can best be described as a green desert.49 Petitjean Roget argues that these two motifs reflect attempts on the part of ritual specialists to influence the regularity and intensity of dry seasons and wet seasons. He argues the rock art is in areas where people would want to ensure the safety and security of water sources. On dry islands, like Anguilla, petroglyphs are located near one of the few water sources on the island. In the Windwards, petroglyphs tend to be located on boulders in riverbeds where annual cycles of wet and dry seasons affect the safety and security of the water. By extension, the fact that only one example of rock art has been recorded in Dominica might mean that the Kalinago felt more water secure. Following this line of reasoning, one of the reasons so little rock art exists on Dominica is that water was rarely scarce, even in the dry season. This had less to do with its management and more with the capacity of the land to hold groundwater in perched water tables and deep aquifers.
One can look to everyday objects to see how people might have captured fresh water from precipitation in locations where there was no groundwater or surface water available to drink. As described above, fresh water was not always abundant on islands. On the drier islands on the South American littoral, surface water can be difficult to locate. Queen conch shells, turned upside down, were used to harvest rainwater.50 On beachfronts, harvesting water can be further complicated by the introduction of seawater into the water table. We know the Kalinago had this problem, since they used a specific term for pond water created through permeating saltwater (icópoüi). One strategy was to construct a cistern by burying pots without bottoms, stacked one on top of the other. The walls of the pots acted as an impermeable layer against the surrounding soil. As rain fell, it collected in the basin created by the pots with little contamination from the surrounding soil. This ingenious system relied on water density to make fresh water. The water in pots, while shallow, separated into layers. Fresh water coming from the rain and surface contained little salt, thus having less density than brackish water in the soil or saltwater from the sea. Less-dense fresh water floated on top of denser salty water. The brackish water in between the two separated the saltwater and fresh water. This added to the fresh water on the column’s surface.51
Features such as these highlight the inventive strategies that the Kalinago employed to make drinking water. More important, they also materialize a taxonomy about water that the Kalinago held. In this case, the relationship between objects reflected a taxonomic distinction between fresh water (amoyenti toana) and seawater (inchiénli tona). Báchueti tona, brackish water, separates into both seawater and fresh water. What is remarkable about these labels is that they seem to be common in a very multicultural region. It might be, as some authors suggest, that such similarities emerge from a common source that grows different over time. It can also be the result of a different set of processes, in which people and ideas move between communities that speak different languages but share common concerns. Like elsewhere in the world, Caribbean waters were both elements of the landscape that people took advantage of and the product of human ingenuity. By the time Europeans entered on the scene, water had been made in the Caribbean for more than three thousand years.
What Europeans changed is how it was made. These varied relations of humans and water, or waterways, have particular material engagements that provide a larger context in which to frame the glass bottles and kwaffes so common on eighteenth-century sites. As such, these engagements speak to an important point about waterways. Waterways are also a kind of assemblage.
Assemblages of Water
My focus on waterways surrounding the sugar revolution in Dominica builds on archaeologists’ traditional concerns about water in relation to agricultural intensification, land management, and power. Water has been used as a foundation to study “management” linked to states and the consolidation of power.52 Implicated with these very issues are the roles of infrastructure, the making of surplus, or a mode of agricultural production where humans, “reacting specifically to the water deficient landscape, move towards a specific hydraulic ordering of life.”53 One of the shortcomings of this approach to water control, land use, and power, is that it tends to assume hierarchical modes of production, where water infrastructure is evidence of political centralization, as in European states. Recent scholarship has begun to focus on the hydrosociality of waterways;54 it juxtaposes the hydrosocial and the hydrological, emphasizing the sociopolitical as well as the biophysical processes that make water flow.55 Waterways—including rivers, streams, and currents, they argue—are not simple ecological mechanisms that can be fully controlled by human institutions.56 They stress that infrastructure comprises assemblages of human-environment interactions, providing a lens into how people and nature influence each other.57
Water is an assemblage of qualities. There is a firmness to water that makes it part of everything we know as humans. It brought to life the Atlantic economy as a source of power and a medium for transportation. It animated Caribbean landscapes as a basic substance essential for the metabolism of plants and animals. It is also an important agent in crafting the objects and subjects of everyday life. Recognizing the different types of water and how people used them can be quite difficult. Water is always on the move. As matter, it is subject to natural forces. Gravity makes it flow downhill. Excessive heat causes it to evaporate. The cooling of humid air causes it to fall as precipitation. Water also moves between bodies as part of metabolic processes. It is in the vegetable matter that humans eat, the urine and feces that human excrete. From these substances, water seeps into the soil and streams from which we drink. It also moves within and between the types of water we use. Therefore, we must pay special attention to the historical and social contexts in which categories of water are created. Approaching water as a cultural substance moves our analyses beyond environmental reconstruction to interpretations that explore the relations between humans and the environment through the many social, cultural, and ideological uses and meanings of water.
Waterways are not accidents of nature. Dominican waterways were created through the ingenuity of human beings wishing to move, contain, and use water. Paraphrasing Matt Edgeworth, waterways are an entanglement between nature and culture, where both the water’s form and its flow trouble distinctions between the two.58 Humans settle adjacent to rivers, oceans, and seasonal creek beds, and this was certainly the case when they entered the Caribbean three thousand years ago. Written this way, waterways are not often understood as material culture. Yet if you think about material culture as “those aspects of the environment modified by human interaction,” as Jim Deetz suggested, most waterways can be described as a kind of material culture in that they are shaped by human interaction.59 Canals can be cut, river banks can be modified, and even ocean currents can be interrupted by decades of production based on the burning of fossil fuels. As material culture, waterways are uncooperative ones, in that their materiality, which makes them so useful for human purposes, also makes them difficult to manage, control, or regulate. Water flows.
Attending to the made-ness of waterways concentrates archaeological examination on landscape and its modification over time. Water is necessary for people to make a living off the land. Whether it is in the domain of agriculture, horticulture, or raising herds of domesticated creatures, water is essential for the metabolism of plants, animals, and even the microbial biota that make up the soils of the earth. It is the principal constituent of life, composing 85 to 95 percent of most plants and 60 to 80 percent of most animals. It facilitates the chemical reactions that convert substances into energy, and vice versa. Water is also a medium of transport, moving nutrient-rich soils across distances to restore the capacity of soil on a plot of land to grow foodstuffs. It also moves those nutrients found in the soil between bodies, soils, and matter. In the absence of water, plants, animals, and microorganisms will die. That said, some organisms do better in some environments than others. For example, too much moisture contributes directly to deterioration of fats, vitamins, flavors, and colors within foods through the work of enzymes. Moisture allows molds and other microorganisms to grow on the surface of an organism, further contributing to increased decay.
Landscape features, infrastructures, and terrain modification are venues to explore food production, social lives, and the polities that employ them.60 Here, water infrastructure is physically integral to political processes, rather than just a means of water accumulation.61 While identifying the types of infrastructure is important, understanding them as part of a larger network of water is essential. “Natural” features such as aquifers, rivers, springs, and ponds can be shaped by human action. Watercourses can be modified, ponds can be enlarged, and aquifers can be overexploited by planting crops that require more water than can be recharged through precipitation. Landscape features also include “cultural” features. Wells can be dug to take advantage of aquifers that are hard to reach from the surface. Soils can be moved from one place to another and retained by walls of stone or earth to elevate fields. These can be arranged on mountain slopes to create terraces or along coastal plains to create raised fields. Canals can be dug to distribute water to areas in which there is little, or away from areas in which there is too much. Water in streams and canals can be diverted by weirs. It can also be dammed with dykes, creating large catchments of water. Some of these catchments can be found downstream as tanks to feed people, others can be found upstream to create reservoirs.
Such infrastructure continues to exert influence, well after those who designed it. Take the historical ecology of water in the Basin of Mexico.62 Perhaps because of the prominence of canals in early depictions of the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan, encountered by Bernal Diaz and Cortés, or the sheer size of the cities they supported in the classic (Teotihuacan) and post-classic (Tenochtitlan) periods, irrigation and water control in the Basin of Mexico has been one of the more thoroughly examined cases of raised field agriculture in the Americas. The transition from the semi-mobile food-growing hunters during the pre-classic period, to the rain-fed and minimally irrigated crops of the urbanized and hierarchical world of the classic period, would not have been possible without major changes in the control and use of water. These changes were both technical—with the development of canals, dykes, and causeways allowing for the more effective containment and redistribution of water—and social-cultural—reflected in, for example, linkages between legitimate rule and the provision of irrigation water, and in shifting diets and food practices.63 The operation of political and social power was (and to a great extent still is) bound up with the control of and access to water. This, however, has clearly been a long-contested domain and an arena for conflict and negotiation—cultural as well as political and economic—rather than the exclusive province of a centralized elite.64 These relations did not change abruptly when Spain usurped control, nor were they changeless in the wake of face-to-face interactions with other displaced peoples. To describe the hydrosocial requires documenting the many relationships that humans have with water and how those relationships are framed.
Caribbean water systems introduced to grow and process sugar cane were borrowed from Mediterranean shores, especially those controlled by Muslim polities in the Levant, North Africa, and southern Spain.65 Cane cultivation and processing was, in turn, influenced by hydrosocial relations in South India. Crops grown in this arid landscape include “thirsty” plants like sugar cane, rice, and fruit.66 Farmers also grew millet and legumes that required less water and different strategies of investment in irrigation. Annually, the area receives less than 500 mm of rain, the majority of which falls during the monsoon. Outstanding examples of waterworks were engineered in the region. Canals, reservoirs, and wells were built to meet the needs of farmers to water their fields and feed themselves. Some of the reservoirs were filled by canals fed by rivers. Other reservoirs relied on precipitation and runoff to fill their hold. Some of these were solitary tanks; others were linked through a network of tunnels controlled by stone sluices. In Dominica, planters wishing to build sugar plantations had to transport water across distances to power sugar factories and move water from places where there was an abundance of water to places where it was scarce. As in South Asia, this included a system of catchments, waterways, and dykes. If one were to focus only on aqueducts, it would appear as if control of water were highly centralized. Yet, together with other landscape features, we see a host of management strategies in which ordinary farmers exercised planning and control over water and its distribution.
The plantation indexes just one of many relationships between humans and water in the Caribbean. Africans brought to Dominica had equally complex ways to manage water in order to promote cultivation. Intercropping and enhancing landscape features were strategies practiced by African farmers thrust into slavery. Though sometimes depicted as a state of “permanent cultivation” that is less elaborate than hydraulic systems that support monoculture, intercropping can support large urban centers, cohorts of artisans and merchants, as well as long-distance trade.67 The retreating waters exposed clayey soils that could trap water in back swamps and ponds. Farmers sowed more land with plants in close proximity that had different water tolerances, including rice and sorghum. To produce high yields, farmers enhanced the banks to create terraces that would hold water through the dry season. Farmers became adept at judging which crops would be suitable for these areas.
Judith Carney documented three different water regimes associated with rice cultivation in twentieth-century Guinea.68 The first, used in drier climates, was a rain-fed system. The second, used in inland swampy areas, relied on groundwater collected from artesian wells, freshwater springs, and wells dug into perched water tables. The final water regime, used on tidal waterways and floodplains, had to retain fresh water and keep brackish and saline water from entering into fields. The floodplain system of growing rice required thorough manipulation of water flow through floodgates, canals, and ditches. These strategies involve planning that would calibrate the investment of time and labor in relation to variation in wetness and dryness of soil over the year. For those being thrust into slavery, there was no single water regime they brought with them to the Caribbean.
For farmers entering the Caribbean in the centuries before Columbus, constructing raised fields was a technique available to manage water.69 Wetlands in the tropical Americas were, on the one hand, rich in fertile soils; on the other, those soils could be waterlogged.70 In an environment that experiences both drought and flooding, growing maize (which prefers drier soils) and manioc (which prefers wetter soils) presented a particular challenge. Farmers on the Caribbean’s South American coastline used raised fields to regulate water during annual heavy rains and dry spells, constructing small agricultural mounds with wooden tools.71 These raised fields provided better drainage, soil aeration, and moisture retention. The fields also benefited from increased fertility from the muck continually scraped from the flooded basin and deposited on the mounds. The farmers limited flows, preserving soil structure and conserving soil nutrients and organic matter. While there have been no documented archaeological examples in the insular Caribbean, such techniques have been documented in contemporary Puerto Rico.72 Given this and their use in deep history, it is not unreasonable to argue raised fields were one strategy farmers used to manage water.
In contrast to the massive irrigation works employed by Europeans to make land suitable for crops such as sugar, the modifications employed by Indigenous peoples and Africans may have seemed humbler. They were no less complex, requiring consideration of the time and labor to necessary to account for the soil’s moisture variations over the year. These strategies involved calculations of risk about catastrophic consequences. Investment of time, matter, and energy did not always yield in ways that the farmers had intended. Finally, these strategies required communal labor to create the earthworks responsible for retaining or draining fields. This included earthen ditches and embankments to drain water from fields, ponds that captured fresh water in the wet season and retained it in the dry season, alignments of stone that might act as dykes, and terraces with stone retaining walls that could capture or slow the movement of water downhill. These are the archaeologically visible features that reflect strategies of substance where water is concerned.
Humans took advantage of natural waterways to traverse distances, cut across boundaries, and ship goods. Take, for example, work in the Mediterranean. Archaeologists have mapped the circulation of goods and ideas through economic networks, framed these circulations with geographic affordances, and drawn inferences about global entanglements—some of which could have extended into sub-Saharan Africa.73 Along Caribbean waterways, peripheral flows were essential to placemaking.74 Concentrating on moments when people from distant shores interacted forces an examination of the hydrosociality of the Atlantic, not only as a body of water bounded by continents, but also as an assemblage of currents that flow. This approach to landscape is particularly useful because it focuses on the connectivity of regions. Concentrating on the movement of objects and people along these networks allows us to interrogate some of the assumptions about territoriality and the movement of subjects across borders.
The Atlantic, like other areas of archaeological interest, is a region with a large number of niches for human exploitation.75 It is, simultaneously, a profoundly uncertain environment where climate can be unpredictable. Since Atlantic microregions are diverse, the possibilities of each are different, and catastrophe in one will not affect all. So, for example, against the threat of a wheat crop failing in one place, insurance can be found partly in growing other grains such as maize or millet and, more importantly, in producing surpluses of goods that can be exchanged for grain.76 Because of these features, from early on no economy in the Atlantic was merely a “subsistence economy.” All crops could be cash crops or subsistence crops, depending on the circumstances of a particular year. Trade is not a sign of the modern world, but a feature of the many regions, like the Atlantic, that shaped trade’s history. Foregrounding the diversity of microregions does not lead to a geographic determinism in which outcomes can be predicted. Rather, it opens up a world of possibilities, in which the sea becomes an interface for social organization. For example, the scarcity and abundance created through uncertain climate conditions leads to a variety of different social strategies: redistribution of wealth, overproduction, or the spreading of risk among community members. These are considerations that shape the historiography of the Atlantic world.
The distance it takes to travel from one side of the ocean to another, political boundaries, and the restricted mobility of many, meant those residing in these settlements would not or could not ever meet. Yet their lives were all touched through the flow of goods on water. There is, however, one critical difference between the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. The Mediterranean is an enclosed sea. The Atlantic is not. The land masses that these bodies of water touched had their own waterways, which informed the goods circulated on Atlantic currents. Along the West African coast and its environs, African merchants employed an extensive network of waterways connecting—at least seasonally—an area stretching from the Volta River in modern Ghana to the Niger Delta, and possibly beyond.77 These interlocked waterways, which later became “feeders” of the Portuguese-controlled slave trade, were organized by the Portuguese.78 Textiles, glass beads, and copper goods were rare and prestigious items that had long been percolating in limited quantities from North Africa, besides other small production centers in Sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas the Portuguese and other early European actors of the trade thought of themselves as merchants, they actually plugged themselves into pre-existing networks that, from an African perspective, did not belong to the realm of trade, but foreign relations.79
The Atlantic is connected to a network of flows. Water flows in rivers along many ways.80 On one end there is a tributary river system. Many small streams, rivers, and springs merge successively into larger waterways that eventually flow into rivers and then a sea. On the other end of the spectrum are distributary systems. Here there is a flow of water from a single source, primarily in one direction, to many different waterways. Goods circulated on this system can be a source of power. For people circulating on this flow, there are a limited number of paths to take, and at each point where decisions have to be made about where to move goods, they can scrutinize and control this flow. Many rivers have integrated systems: they contain a network of waterways that combine both distributary and tributary properties. In a tributary system, there are multiple sources of water feeding into one large waterway. These convergences are loci where goods and power are accumulated. In between these two endpoints are the braided waterways found in an integrated river system. Here there are multiple paths to get from one point to another, and none is easily scrutinized or controlled from a single point. As such, flow is a function of not only the hydrological but also the hydrosocial: ports, ships, bridges, and other infrastructure. Both take advantage of the affordances described above and shape the flow, creating new pathways.
To a certain extent, the Atlantic Ocean can also be viewed as a river system. On the one hand, it is a tributary river system (map 2.1). The Eastern Caribbean island chain to which Dominica belongs was strategically located between North and South America, at the intersection of the Guiana Current and a circular waterway known as the North Atlantic Gyre. This gyre formed the main trunk of the river, so to speak, and comprises the North Equatorial Current, the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Drift, and the Canary Current. The Guiana Current is fed by the South Atlantic Gyre, comprising the Brazil, Benguela, and South Equatorial currents. The Eastern Caribbean is strategically located between North and South America at the intersection of two important oceanic currents. The Caribbean Sea is influenced by waters fed by the Guiana Current that move north along Brazil’s coast, some of which flow through the Grenada Channel. This fast-moving flow is the Caribbean Current, which enters into the Gulf of Mexico through the Yucatán Channel. The majority of the flow moves around the Gulf Coast of the United States, flowing down along the west Florida coast before moving through the Straits of Florida to become the Gulf Stream, which moves northward through the Bahamas and along the eastern coast of Florida. On the windward side of the Lesser Antilles, waters caught in the Guiana Current are joined by those in the North Equatorial Current to form the Antillean Current. This current joins with the Gulf Stream near the Bahamas.
These currents have important implications for vessels traveling by sail or for human-powered vessels in the Eastern Caribbean. Winds and currents powerfully shaped this trade for sailing vessels. Sailing vessels from Western European ports found it much easier to sail westward after first reaching latitude 30° north, off the coast of West Africa. At the same time, there were other trade winds from the South Atlantic. These trade winds link the important slave-trading ports on the Bight of Biafra and Southwest Africa with the Americas. Trade winds would propel vessels westward, reaching the Caribbean rather than going straight to North America. Returning from the Caribbean and North America, it was easier to follow the Gulf Stream in a northeasterly direction, propelled by the wind pattern known as the westerlies. On the windward side, a strong and prevailing current moves water and vessels from North to South. On the leeward side of the islands, the general movement of currents in the Caribbean Sea is from east to west. Vessels wishing to move north found it much easier to travel on the windward side. Canoes and sail craft could take advantage of the strong current heading north. The currents on the leeward side of the islands are much less powerful, and the winds were broken by the tall mountains of islands (at least in the inner arc island chain). This made southward traffic possible. Human-powered canoes would not have struggled against the Caribbean current.
Historical accounts allow us to understand the time it took to travel some of the distances between islands using smaller craft. Dominican priest Père Jean-Baptiste Labat (1663–1738) traveled to Martinique in 1694 and Guadeloupe in 1696, and returned to Europe in 1706, where he published accounts from his voyage.81 He owned one estate, Fonds Saint-Jacques, where he developed new techniques and applied “modern” machinery to process sugar. During his assignment, he traveled by canoe in the region, visiting the islands of Dominica, St. Lucia, and St. Vincent. These large dugout canoes were made from gommier trees, ranged in size from twenty-nine to forty-two feet long, and, by the time Labat was writing, had been modified with the addition of two small square sails. He goes on to say that they could carry as many as fifty people and transport large amounts of cargo long distances.82 According to his journal, travel time between neighboring islands was less than half a day’s journey and could precipitate activity on a different island (map 2.2).83 For example, one Jesuit missionary who lived in Martinique would travel to Grand Bay in Dominica every Sunday after giving mass in St. Pierre to supervise a plantation there.84 Captains of sail craft would tack against westerly trade winds to move southward, though at some distance from the mountainous islands. Such flows profoundly shaped Caribbean history.
Eastern Caribbean islands were a geographic and economic interface. They had the benefit of strong winds and currents, which would facilitate interregional Atlantic trade with ports in Africa and North America, and at the same time an intraregional trade managed mostly by small dugout canoes and wind-driven sloops. In the early to mid-twentieth century, sailors would refer to proceeding northward from Barbados as going down-island—inverting what a North American reader might take for granted as directions in the flow of ships and goods. For human-powered canoes, the islands would offer shelter from the Atlantic’s strong winds and currents. For smaller, more nimble sail craft, including sloops and vernacular watercraft, this enabled an intercoastal trade moving both north and south among the islands. Both canoes and sloops became important vessels in an interisland trade in goods and people that was an important part of the colonial economy. So, when Troup first arrived in the Caribbean at Barbados, it was not because that island was closer to Europe. Rather, it is more likely that the ship captain was accounting for prevailing winds and strong ocean currents to first stop at Barbados and then move northward to other ports, with less resistance than if the ship had gone the other way. Dominica was critically located at the intersection of the gyre and prevailing wind patterns. For this reason, many early accounts of Indigenous people are located either in Dominica, Marie Galante, or Guadeloupe.
Water created distinctions in everyday life. Sidney Mintz famously stated, “tobacco, sugar, and tea were the first objects within capitalism that conveyed with their use the complex idea that one could become different by consuming differently.”85 I extend this observation to water. For Cynthia Robin, the everyday concentrates archaeological focus on “ordinary places and objects” and their extraordinary role in human society. Viewed in this way, water is a crafted substance. Ordinary objects are used to store specific types of water. But sometimes objects don’t just store types of water—they craft it. In some cases, water is crafted for the purpose of people using it. By mapping ordinary “water” objects in ordinary spaces, archaeologists trace how water “can socialize people into existing social relations and produce new social forms.”86 In this way, ordinary objects play a role in crafting people who use them. In crafting water, people also crafted themselves.
Archaeologists have increasingly attached cultural scrutiny to the categories they employ in describing objects as part of larger constellations of forces shaping everyday life. Archaeologists use the term “folk taxonomy” to label everyday understandings of the material world, found in all societies, that are revealed through analogical reasoning of the archaeological record. People use such taxonomies to classify the world around them without second thought. These are part of everyday common sense, and are subject to considerable affective and intellectual investment. Different taxonomies can be embedded in the same object. Thus objects, or in this case matter, are portable across taxonomic categories.87 According to Zedeno, index objects “play key roles in ontological taxonomies because of their relational properties, in particular their potential for animating objects and places around them.”88 In other words, humans and nonhumans alike carry within them a certain latency that can be activated when they come into contact with each other.
Water is a particularly useful material to consider such taxonomies, as it moves between the categories that people use. As a “biophysical basis of reality,” water is also subject to particular discourses about nature.89 Attaching cultural scrutiny to objects, and to the categories we employ to interpret substances and things, is at one level a taxonomic exercise. Our knowledge of taxonomic categories employed by people and their references to water organizes those objects in particular ways that provide a different sort of map of the world. Thinking through taxonomies asks us to consider what people thought water was, the distinctions they made between types of water, and the rules that governed the appropriate use for different types of water in different circumstances.
Categories that appear simple to ascertain are subject to the historical and cultural discourses in which knowledge about water is gathered: animate and inanimate, sweet and foul, or sacred and ordinary. Anthropologists have documented systems of belief where water was animate in and of itself. For instance, water spirits, some of which had antecedents in Africa, could be called on to act on someone’s behalf, including for love, protection, and accumulating wealth.90 As discussed below, some archaeologists have interpreted x-marked pottery associated with eighteenth-century Africans in South Carolina as a constituent of waterside spiritual ceremonies.91 Pottery, charged with meaning, activated landscapes in which water was a crucial element.92
The categories foul and sweet are equally contingent. Dr. Henry A. Alfred Nicholls completed a report on yaws in the Windward islands in the 1890s. Yaws is a disease contracted by contact with others infected by the disease. While in Carriacou, Nicholls suspected the source might be drinking water “got from brackish wells, and muddy ponds wherein the surface drainage has collected.”93 Nicholls felt that the combination of laundry, human bathing, and the watering of cattle made these ponds “muddy, stagnant and foul.”94 According to original notes held by Lennox Honychurch, Nicholls interviewed one man who had spent two years in Grenada, where he had drunk the clean public water from the island’s free flowing streams. This man complained Grenada’s water “was too light,” and he was relieved to be back in Carriacou, where the water “had more body.”95 For the townspeople of Hillsborough, the taxonomy of water was not contaminated versus clean, but light versus heavy. This difference in taxonomy had implications beyond the water itself. Whereas for Nicholls cattle contaminated the ponds, for the townspeople they were important to sealing the ponds so that a more flavorful water could brew. Nicholls claimed the villagers said that cattle were necessary: “cattle tread down and harden the muddy bottoms, and prevent the ponds from ‘leaking.’”96 Cleanliness or purity was not part of the equation of what made a good glass of water. Cows made it thus.
Contemporary illustrations map some of the vessels that slaves used to store types of water. In a visual database run by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, twenty-five images, created between 1760 and 1840, depict features and material culture associated with water distribution or use in the Caribbean (table 2.1).97 While it is dangerous to use such images literally, contemporary paintings in published and unpublished manuscripts indicate that slaves captured, transported, and consumed liquid through a variety of vessels made of different materials. Broadly speaking, enslaved laborers on plantations employed water for three purposes: washing, cooking, and drinking. Surface water, including rivers and ponds, was used for washing clothes and bathing. Leather and wooden buckets, barrels, and jars were used to transport groundwater or surface water for use and, in some cases, sale. Buckets, barrels, and jars also stored water that would later be used for cooking and drinking. Gourds, earthenware pitchers, and glass bottles stored, transported, and served drinking water.
These vessels didn’t just store types of water; they were also used to craft water in everyday life. The choices people make about consumption, including water, are situated within regional constellations of ideas, meanings, and practices.98 Some are rooted in local knowledge and communities of practice, while others depend on, or are enabled or constrained by, the choices made by other communities of practice. These networks enabled people to “share ideas about how to make and use objects.”99 Getting water and consuming it can be a highly social activity. People make choices about what waters to drink and how to prepare it based on local knowledge about what is the best, most appropriate, or most efficient way. Those people living in the villages who collected, processed, and consumed water formed distinct communities of practice.
When a cup of water was drunk, different physical and cultural structures, individuals and agencies came together. Many were involved: people who made pots, grew and carved calabashes, cultivated botanicals, and fetched water from nearby sources. Each of these activities required experience and improvisation. Fetching water required knowledge about which spring to gather water from or where on a stream to pull a bucket. There was a complex relationship between the needs and desires of the person drinking the beverage and the caretaker’s ability to craft a substance that met that person’s taste. Elements that aided in crafting water could be reused, most notably glass bottles used to store liquor or ceramic vessels built to process sugar. Much of the act of crafting water involved repurposing such vessels, to make modifications to water at hand, rather than collecting water anew.
For instance, the conceptualization and crafting of tea was always a more complex process than a simple translation by a cook from idea to physical reality. “Tea” was crafted with substances obtained at some distance, namely, the black tea purchased at the local shop. In the eighteenth century, there were numerous treatises on brewing and serving tea, many of which pay special attention to accessories, including “a teapot, slop bowl, container for milk or cream, tea canister, sugar container, tongs, teaspoons, cups and saucers.”100 Many of these accessories were made as refined earthenware in the Old World, including potteries in Staffordshire, England, and Nevers, France. Services, such as Chinese porcelain, were highly valued for the quality of manufacture, the distances traveled, and the symbolic capital they conferred on their users. The assemblage of objects, then, can be seen as a catalyst of these ideas. The vessels are significant in that they craft both the drink and the person. The idea may never have had a material existence as a recipe or prescription on a piece of paper, but it did exist in the final form of the assemblage.
Today, Dominicans use the word “tea” to refer to any hot beverage. In addition to black tea, the term can refer to “fish tea,” “cocoa tea,” coffee, and “bush tea.” Tea was seen to have curative properties. According to Dominicans, drinking tea daily mitigates the gas and cold that accumulates overnight and is trapped in the body. Bush tea, made with herbs, grasses, or barks, such as mint, lemongrass, or bwa (Cr.), was prescribed for diarrhea or worms.101 People attributed several symptoms to worms, from what was most likely lactose intolerance to diabetes.102 A “fit tea” was crafted from the herb sime kontwa (Cr.) and water collected in a nearby river. This water was boiled with the herb for one minute until chartreuse in color. The person crafting the water knew what that water was supposed to be, how it should be used, what qualities it was intended to have, and the manner through which it should be taken. The crafter of the water translated this idea into the assemblage of objects used to transform and hold the substance in its final form.
Of the images of vessels containing water, the only one with accompanying text is by Isaac Belisario: “Water-Jar Sellers” (figure 2.2). The image shows two men carrying the array of vessels one might find in the colonial Caribbean to store and cool water. The pottery in the tray includes “goglets” or goblets; a “monkey” or “monkey jar,” and several other unspecified forms. The large pot being carried on the right appears to be a Jamaican version of the “Spanish jar.” Along with the print, Belisario provides a brief treatise on water in colonial contexts, stating, “Water, that grand refresher of animal life, is here rendered an object of the first consideration, more especially in the domestic economy—from being unattainable in such purposes.”103 The reason for these vessels and water carts was not only to counteract the leaching of salt into the water table, but also to prevent water from becoming foul. The jars were important because they protected water from “The effect produced by a tropical climate in corrupting it.”104
The importance of safe and clean drinking water was at least a part of administrators’ calculations. Belisario describes the attempt of Falmouth, on the north coast of Jamaica, to build main and service pipes like “those adopted in the Mother Country.” Likewise, colonial administrators in Point-à-Pitre and Basse-Terre, Guadeloupe, would provide safe water for town residents.105 Belisario continues to provide a detailed description of Kingston’s water supply: “there are pumps in every street and wells in almost every yard, but so strongly are their waters impregnated with salt . . . (with few exceptions), as to be totally unfit for culinary uses . . .”106 The jars, according to Belisario, would be used to carry water in water carts on the tops of the heads of servants, who “traversed the city.” Belisario goes on to describe how homes should have a “water pantry, in which jars of large dimensions, serving as reservoirs are deposited.” There, a “trusted” slave would clean and resupply the vessels. It appears, therefore, that such vessels were important for transporting and storing water.
In slave villages, drowned animals, human waste, or the everyday activity of bathing contaminated the water supply and made slaves vulnerable to waterborne diseases.107 Abolitionist Robert Nickolls invoked pond water to assert that slavery deprived people of basic needs.108 People had to develop different ways to make water potable. There were additive methods that made water palatable. Slave apologist Thomas Atwood states that a daily ration in the rainy season was a “pint of rum and water, sweetened with molasses.”109 This method was not unique to Dominica or slavery. While today grog is considered a type of alcoholic drink, in eighteenth-century Dominica it was more associated with water. Rum was a way to make fetid water stored in barrels palatable on long naval voyages. In many West Indian islands, water for grog came from ponds, which were easily polluted.
There were also methods to remove elements. Elite kitchens often had “porous stone-mortars” called dripstones. These were carved limestone vessels with architectural features designed to capture and percolate water. Water that fell on a roof flowed into deep hollows cut into a large dripstone. It percolated through the constituent material and slowly dripped onto another dripstone with a shallower hollow. Impurities in the water were filtered out as water dripped through the porous stone jars. Under the pair of stone jars, a receptacle received the water as it trickled down. These stones were heavy, difficult to move, and found primarily in the homes of wealthier free residents in slave colonies.110 Other residents allowed sedimentation to clarify their water. They placed stones or lead disks at the bottom of large earthen jars, like the one depicted in Belisario’s painting, to help the sediment settle. Others placed beans from the strychnine tree at the bottom of a pot “as in the Coast of Coromandel.”111 Sedimentation is in part a function of volume and time. By decreasing the volume of water, one decreases the amount of time it takes for sediment to settle. Sediments also fill the spaces between stones. As I describe in later chapters, Biot jars made in southeastern France, local earth jars called D’Aubain, and drip jars, made to process sugar, were commonly used for water storage in estate houses and slave settlements throughout the Windward Islands.
Finally, there were methods that transformed water by its very interaction. Goglets, or coarse earthenware pitchers, appear frequently in images depicting slavery in the late eighteenth century. Derived from the French gargoulet and the Portuguese gogoleta, they are also called goblets or “pot l’eau.”112 In Grenada, Dominica, Nevis, and Antigua, goblets are “A long-knecked open clay jug for keeping and serving cool water.”113 This vessel has a much older etymology than the monkey jar.114 The earliest documented use of goglet in the English language is in 1681, “Gurgulets and Jars, which are vessels made of a porous kind of earth.”115 A 1773 English-Portuguese dictionary describes it as “an earthen and narrow-mouthed vessel, out of which the water runs, and guggles.”116 The shape and manufacture of these colonial ceramics are similar to those of counterparts made in the Mediterranean.117 One subtle social transformation occurred as water was filled in goglets: it cooled.118 Beyond qualities such as freshness, salinity, clarity, and murkiness, porous vessels added a new dimension to water—coolness.
The study of water and how humans relate to it is far from new. Archaeologists have examined peoples’ relationships with and through water to understand the emergence of “complex society.” Debates have centered on the persistence of alternative arrangements of power, the emergence of long-distance trade, and the centralization of control over infrastructure. At the same time, anthropologists, geographers, and sociologists have brought attention to water security and its everyday uses.119 In most cases, the amount of water available is not the primary concern. Rather, the potability of that water, in light of competing interests of agriculture, mining, and industry, has drawn attention to issues of water security. Contributing to this discussion is an overtaxed infrastructure, privatization of utilities, and changing patterns of population and settlement.
Combined, these streams describe how the richness of the archaeological record can address how people conceptualized and engaged with water in the past to encounter the predicaments they faced. Windward Islands, such as Dominica, that were colonized in the last quarter of the eighteenth century with the express purpose of increasing sugar and coffee production faced similar crises. Reaching back in time, it is clear that water security has always been a concern in the Caribbean, but never fully resolved. The way that people managed water insecurity differed both within cultural traditions and between traditions. Despite the Caribbean’s long-term history with and through water, colonizing narratives depicted islands such as Dominica as a place of latency that could be realized only through the intervention of markets and slavery. Analysis of archaeological remains from slave houses provides an entrance into the exploration of social relations around drinking water and its implications for the reproduction of slave society.